As I mentioned yesterday, among many important things, Scott’s post on Cost Disease explains (IMO) the rise of the Alt-Right (VERY broadly defined) and Trump’s victory in a way that I don’t think any mainstream publication can. (Not explicitly, mind.)
“Cost disease” is Scott’s (and others’) term for “things getting more expensive without any increase in quality or quantity.”
Over the past 40 years or so, some of the most expensive–and important–things in life like housing, education, health care, and infrastructure have doubled, tripled, or dectupled in price with very little improvement to show for it (except maybe in healthcare, where we are in fact living longer.)
Getting less bang for your buck is downright frustrating.
Now let’s suppose you’re an American conservative of some stripe. Maybe you think abortion is immoral. It’s been about 40 years since Roe V. Wade, and abortion is still legal. Maybe you’re opposed to gay marriage. Sorry, that horse has left the closet. Did you hope to bring democracy and freedom to the people of Iraq? Yeah… Good luck with that.
Maybe you’d just like to live in a community full of people who share your religious beliefs and cultural norms, like the average person actually did back in 1950 and before. Well, demographics have not been on your side for a long time–not only have whites gone from about 88% of the country to <50% of babies and thus soon a minority overall, but the whole country is becoming increasingly atheistic.
Or perhaps you’d just like to get an entry-level job without going 100k into debt and having your entire paycheck cleaned out by health insurance and rent, in which case you and Scott are on the same page.
So what, exactly, have Republicans been “conserving” all this time? Tax cuts for the wealthy? Hell, they didn’t even succeed at building a democracy in Iraq, and they spent trillions of dollars on it! And that’s our money, not theirs! They killed a bunch of people in the process, too.
Looking back, the two biggest Republican victories (that I can see) in my life time have been “getting tough on crime” and overseeing the Fall of the Soviet Union. That one was basically a coincidence, rather than the results of any specific Reagan/Bush I policies, but they do generally get credit for the Tough on Crime business. Note that this is all stuff that happened in the 80s and early 90s; for the past 20 years
And come this election (2016,) who were they running? JEB BUSH. Yes, little brother of the last Bush. You might as well make his campaign slogan “Just like last time, but with more Mexicans!”
Disclaimer: I understand wanting the Mexican vote. I understand wanting to appeal to Hispanics. They live here, they’re a huge voting block, (most of them are great people,) and I hear they’re not really down with the whole SJW agenda thingie.
But do you know the problem with Bush II?
It was pouring our money into a black hole in Iraq, inflating housing prices, and then crashing the economy. It was the general progression of every single thing outlined above that has made life harder for everyday Americans.
Maybe I’m missing some finer details here, but “not enough Mexicans” was not even remotely on the list of complaints.
The folk running the Republican Party had their heads so far up their asses they thought they could just play demographic games (“It works for the Democrats!”) without offering a plan to actually CONSERVE anything.
Okay, I am pissed that these incompetents have any role in our politics.
I’ve noticed that people tend to be liberal when they’re young and become more conservative as they age, essentially locking in the liberalism of their college years but then erecting barriers against the liberalism of college students a decade younger than themselves. While this is natural and probably sensible in many ways, it leads to certain inconsistencies, like people who champion “women’s lib” but criticize “feminism.” Um. So many of the older conservatives I know basically just want to return to sometime in the late 70s/early 80s–you know, the cusp of the AIDs epidemic, the crack wars, rising crime turning America’s cities into burnt-out shells, etc. Great times!
Some people try to correct for this by invoking their grandarents’ or great-grandparents’ time–as though anyone were actually eager to re-live WW2 and the Great Depression. I don’t know about you, but I hear those times were pretty awful. And if we go back further than that, we start hitting things like “Massive epidemics kill millions of people.”
Simply trying to rewind the clock to some earlier year doesn’t solve today’s problems, but I understand the urge to conserve the things you value and love about your own society, childhood, culture, etc.–and the Neocons/Mainstream Republicans have failed miserably at that.
Trump’s message–and the “alt-right,” broadly–has focused on Law and Order; safety (from Terrorism;) jobs (“it’s the economy, stupid;) Cost Disease (“repeal two regulations for every new one” and “repeal Obamacare;”) and the general preservation of Americans as a people/culture (by limiting immigration, especially from groups that didn’t contribute to America’s founding stock.)
Meanwhile, mainstream Republicans are still kicking and screaming that what the country really needs is more Bush II policies.
If “evolution” is a word that comes up a lot in the late 1800s (even before Darwin,) “degenerate” is the word of the 1930s and 40s.
In Kabloona, (1941) an ethnography of the Eskimo (Inuit) of northern Canada, de Poncins speaks highly of the “pure” Eskimo, whose ancestral way of life remains unsullied by contact with European culture, and negatively of the “degenerate Eskimo,” caught in the web of international trade, his lifestyle inexorably changed by proximity and contact with the West.
The Northwest Coast Indians felt the ill effects of too much contact with British, Russian, and American traders. The rum of the trading schooners was one of several factors contributing to the degeneracy of those not actually exterminated.
In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, (1939) Dr. Price argues that modern foods are low in nutrient value and inferior to many native, ancestral diets, and that the spread of this “white man’s food” caused an epidemic of disease, tooth decay, and skeletal mal-formation, which he documents extensively. Dr. Price refers to the change in appearance from one generation to the next, coinciding with the introduction of modern foods, as “interrupted heredity.” The parents represent “pure racial type,” with strong teeth and bones, while the children, bow-legged and sick, suffer physical degeneration.
(This kind of language that Dr. Price uses sometimes confuses us moderns, because we flinch reflexively at phrases like “racial type” when in fact his argument is the inverse of the racist arguments of his day.)
Now, there is something twee about anthropologists (and historians) who long for the preservation of other peoples’ cultures when the people within those cultures seem to prefer modernity. Igloos and teepees may seem fun and exotic to those of us who don’t live in them, but the people who do might genuinely prefer a house with central heat and a toilet. Obviously the whole anthropologist schtick involves people who really like studying cultures that are distinct from their own, and if the people in those cultures adopt Western lifestyles, then there just isn’t much to study anymore.
(Imagine if we found out tomorrow that all of what we thought were variations in human DNA turned out to be contamination errors due to local pollen, and vast swathes of this blog became moot.)
It is easy to write off such notions as just feel-good sentimentalizing by outsiders, but these are at least outsiders with more first hand knowledge of these cultures than I have, so I think we should at least consider their ideas.
The degeneracy described as a result of contact with the West is not just physical or cultural, but also moral. A culture, fully-fledged, is one of humanity’s greatest technologies, a tool for the total transmission of a group’s knowledge, morals, and behaviors. Your ancestors, facing much the same environment as yourself, and armed with similar tools, struggled to obtain food, marry, raise children, and survive just as you do. The ones who succeeded passed down the lessons of their success, and these lessons became woven into the tapestry of culture you were raised in, saving you much of the trial-and error effort of reproducing your ancestors’ struggles.
Some people claim to believe that all cultures are equally valuable and important. I don’t. I think cultures that practice things like cannibalism, animal sacrifice, and child rape are bad and I don’t cry for their disappearance. But virtually every culture has at least some good features, or else it wouldn’t have come about in the first place.
Cultural lessons stem from the practical–“Ice the runners of your sled to make it run more smoothly”–to the moral–“Share your belongings in common with the tribe”–to the inscrutable–“don’t eat the totem animal.” (Some of these beliefs may be more important than others.) Throughout all of recorded human history, most of us have passed on bodies of moral teachings under the name of “religion,” whether we believe in the literal truth of mythic stories or not.
Rapid cultural change–not the gentle sort that percolates slowly across generations, but massive variety precipitated by an industrial revolution or the sudden introduction of a few thousand years’ worth of technological advancement to a long-isolated people–outstrips a society’s ability to provide meaningful moral or practical guidance. Simply put: people don’t know what to do.
Take alcohol. People have probably been producing fermented beverages for at least 10,000 years, or for about as long as we’ve been trying to store pots of grain and fruit. The French have wine, Mongolians have fermented horse milk, the Vikings fermented honey and the Founding Fathers drank a lot of apple cider.
Alcohol has beneficial effects–few pathogens survive the fermentation process–and obviously harmful effects. Societies that traditionally produced large quantities of alcohol have evolved social norms and institutions to help people enjoy the beneficial effects and avoid the bad ones. France, for example, which in 2014 produce 4.5 billion liters of wine and consumed 2.8 billion liters of the same, is not a nation of violent, wife-beating, car-crashing drunkards. French social norms emphasize moderate wine consumption accompanied by food, friends, and family.
By contrast, in societies where alcohol was suddenly introduced via contact with whites, people don’t have these norms, and the results–like rampant alcoholism on Native American reservations–have been disastrous. These societies can–and likely will–learn to handle alcohol, but it takes time.
Our own society is undergoing its own series of rapid changes–industrialization, urbanization, post-industrialization, the rise of the internet, etc. Andean cultures have been cultivating coca leaves for at least 3,000 years, apparently without much trouble, while the introduction of crack/cocaine to the US has been rather like dropping bombs on all of our major cities.
The invention of fairly reliable contraception and the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s led to the spread of “free love,” which in turn triggered skyrocketing gonorrhea rates. Luckily gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics (at least until it becomes antibiotic resistant,) but it’s still a nasty disease–one internet acquaintance of mine caught gonorrhea, took antibiotics and thought he was in the clear, but then doctors discovered that the inside of his penis was full of scar tissue that was dangerously closing off his bladder. They had basically cut him a new urethra once they were done removing all of the scar tissue, and he spent the next few months in constant, horrible pain, even while on medication.
And to add insult to injury, everyone in his social circle just thought he was bitter, jealous, and trying to make his ex-girlfriend look bad when he tried to warn them that they shouldn’t sleep with her because she gave him gonorrhea.
Degeneracy isn’t just a sickness of the body; it’s a falling apart of all of the morals and customs that hold society together and give people meaning and direction in their lives. You don’t have to waste years trying to “find yourself” when you already have a purpose, but when you have no purpose but to feed yourself, it’s easy to become lost.
I should note that Dr. Price didn’t just examine the teeth of Eskimo and Aborigines, but also of Scots, Swiss, and Americans. His conclusion–nutritional degeneracy due to contact with modern foods–was the same regardless of culture. (Note: nutrition and food production have changed since 1939.) Or as Scott Alexander recently put it:
I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.
Well, that sounds a fair bit more dire than Dr. Price’s assessment. Let’s assume Scott is being poetic and perhaps exaggerating for effect. Still: massive cultural changes can sweep the normative rug out from beneath your feet and leave you injured and confused. It will take time–perhaps centuries–for society to fully adjust to the technological changes of the past hundred years. Right now, everyone is still muddling through, trying to figure out what will kill us and what will save us.
Don’t say positive things about the ingroup that make the outgroups look bad by comparison
“Conservatives”–mostly white males–are the “ingroup”
(I am aware that “outgroup” and “ingroup” are not necessarily the best words here, because liberals use a funny definition of “ingroup” that is more “ingroup to America” than “ingroup to themselves.” We could also phrase this as “dominant majority” vs. “less-powerful minority,” or just “cis-het WASP males,” but there are issues with this phrasing, as well.)
I’m not sure what the rules of Conservative Club are, as it is much harder to inspire an angry conservative Twitter mob than a liberal one. Likewise, liberals (or at least Democrats) are the folk who’ve been violently attacking people at political rallies, not conservatives:
So the best I’ve come up with so far is that outgroups don’t get to criticize the ingroup, as exemplified in the re-branding of “french fries” as “freedom fries” following French criticism of the US plan to bomb Iraq. In general, conservatives believe that it is acceptable to say negative things about others so long as they are true, and it often doesn’t occur to them that others might think elsewise. (This leads to the perception that conservatives are rude.)
(Hrm. I think in general, conservatives respond more strongly to [perceived] physical threats, eg, Bush launching the War on Terror following the 9-11 attack vs. Bill Clinton not bombing anything after the first Al Qaeda bombing of the WTC, or the recent hoopla over Target letting trans people use the bathroom they self-identify with.)
The liberal demand that you never, ever say anything bad about the outgroups explains some otherwise inexplicable results, like Scott Alexander–an LGBT friendly, polyamorous, asexual, atheist Jew who basically agrees with basic SJW theses that blacks and women are oppressed in various ways–getting called “right wing” just because he is willing to say that sometimes SJWs are really mean to people who probably don’t deserve it and critically examine the data on black crime rates. Since “SJW mobs are sometimes mean” and “blacks commit disproportionate quantities of crime” are both statements that reflect negatively on these groups, they are forbidden under #1.
See also the liberals’ response that Donald Trump is “racist” for saying negative things about illegal aliens, like that they have broken the law. To say anything negative about outgroups is “victim blaming.”
This also explains why attempting to be a “moderate” doesn’t work with liberals–if you say something like, “I think both sides have their good and bad points,” then you have again violated rule #1. Conservatives, however, tend to be okay with such statements.
Conservatives tend to disagree with the liberal belief that there exists an “outgroup”–they believe that whites and blacks, men and women, etc., are basically treated equally in modern America. Some of them think that liberals are unfair to conservatives, eg, people who sue bakers for declining to bake gay marriage cakes.
Scotts argument against SJWs is simply that they are not nice to other marginalized groups, like autistic shut-ins or lower-class whites. (Actually, I don’t remember if Scott has specifically argued that SJWs are against low-class whites, but the argument has been made rather abundantly in various places.) This argument works if one is truly committed to helping all outgroups, but fails if the outgroup is specifically defined as “not whites/men” (see rule #3.)
Rule #2 is a more recent innovation, but follows obviously from #1. It explains, for example, why liberals have become reluctant to say anything positive about whites, especially historical ones, unless they can simultaneously also say something positive about women and/or minorities.
For example, any book of notable scientists/inventors/innovators must now include Ada Lovelace, who single-handedly built the first iMac; Jane Goodall, who discovered gorillas; and Amelia Earheart, airplane-crashing pioneer; but you are unlikely to find the names of Niels Bohr, the nobel prize winning father of quantum physics who helped 7,000 people escape from the Nazis and helped build the first atomic bombs; Ignaz Semmelweis, who saved the lives of millions of women by discovering that doctors were infecting by examining them with dirty hands after dissecting corpses; or even Jonas Salk, the guy who cured polio.
On a recent family trip, Suzanne Sherman discovered that slavery, rather than historical contributions, has become the dominant tour-guide narrative at landmarks like Monticello, Montpelier, and Colonial Williamsburg:
While waiting outside of the Peyton Randolph House, we were informed that the tour would cover the home itself, its rooms, architecture, and a brief description of the family who lived there. After that, the tour would concentrate on the many slaves who served the Randolph family, what life was like for them, and the hardships they were forced to endure.
When I inquired if the tour guide would inform us of the philosophical and numerous political contributions the Randolph family made in Colonial Virginia and in the founding of the American republic, the guide shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, indicating he would not. One of the other guides, a man portraying a slave, admonished me, “We’re not gonna sugarcoat anything.”
Peyton Randolph … presided over the first Continental Congress, was a leading figure opposing the Stamp Act and was the first American to be called “Father of his Country.” …
Edmund Randolph … became the aide-de-camp for General Washington, served in the Continental Congress, and was the Governor of Virginia during the Philadelphia Convention. He was one of the drafters of the Virginia Plan, served as attorney general under President Washington, and was secretary of state after Jefferson resigned. I find it incredible that this family was not worthy of discussion.
In all of the paintings Elihu Yale is wearing and surrounded by sumptuous fabrics. … In the second and third paintings we see an unidentified attendant. Much like the wearing of exquisite clothes suggested, placing a servant in a portrait was an articulation of standing and wealth. But when we look more carefully at these two paintings we notice that in addition to the fine clothes the servant and page are wearing they also happen to have metal collars and clasps around their necks. What we are seeing in each painting, then, isn’t a servant or a page, but a slave.
We are fairly certain that Elihu Yale did not own any slaves himself, but there’s no doubting the fact that he participated in the slave trade, profiting from the sale of humans just as he profited from the sale of so many actual objects that were part of the East India trade empire. … In fact, when we look at the paintings it is safe to assume that Elihu Yale was a willing participant in that economy. Since he could have selected anything to represent him in these paintings we can conclude that he chose to be depicted with enslaved people because he believed this narrative would best signify his wealth, power, and worldliness. …
Good morning and welcome, Class of 2019, family members, and colleagues sharing the stage with me. …
About one in twelve of you has been assigned to Calhoun College, named, when the college system was instituted in the 1930s, for John C. Calhoun—a graduate of the Yale College Class of 1804 who achieved extremely high prominence in the early nineteenth century as a notable political theorist, a vice president to two different US presidents, a secretary of war and of state, and a congressman and senator representing South Carolina. …
Calhoun mounted the most powerful and influential defense of his day for slavery.
Yale has no heroes to be proud of or to inspire its students to emulate, only bad people whose portraits must be hidden away and whose names must be publicly excoriated.
The demand that you never say anything bad about the outgoup leads to some odd responses, especially when two outgroups are in conflict. “Muslims” and “gay people” are both outgroups, and Muslims tend not to approve of gay marriage (by a tremendous margin,) but to say so is considered saying something negative about Muslims (even though Muslims themselves probably don’t think so.)
In response to the recent murder of 49 gay people by a Muslim, a liberal friend brought up Christians who kill people or commit terrorism (eg, the IRA,) and stated that we can’t judge an entire religion based on the actions of a few. The idea that, as a practical matter, these two groups might not get along very well simply isn’t considered.
The push to not say negative things about the outgroup probably increases in direct response to outgroup members doing something worth condemning, which may explain why both ends of the American political spectrum reported more favorable views toward Muslims after 9-11 than before it:
Since we happen to live in a democracy, if your first priority is gay rights, then you should logically be opposed to the immigration of future voters who are strongly opposed to gay rights. (Fred Phelps, on the other hand, ought to be thrilled.) But the LGBT coalition has hardly cast its lot in with Trump’s, eg, Donald Trump’s post-Olando appeal to LGBT voters roundly rejected:
Donald Trump’s appeal for support from LBGT voters after the Orlando terrorist attack fell flat with gay rights activists, who said his vows to protect them from homophobic Islamic terrorists were just more of the divisive and bigoted rhetoric they have come to expect from the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. …
Mr. Brown and other gay rights activists said all minority groups have to stick together in opposition to Mr. Trump.
Michael Farmer, deputy development director of the LBGT advocacy group Equality Florida, said gay voters can’t trust Mr. Trump.
“If you’re somebody who holds bigoted views about one minority, who’s to say that you won’t hold them about another minority?” he said. “Folks who deal with these issues, people in minority communities, have got to stand together. Muslims, gay people, African-Americans have got to stand against the disgusting views that Donald Trump holds.”
As a practical matter, Trump might think gays are AIDS-infected perverts, but I highly doubt he plans on rounding them up ISIS-style and executing them. At most, he might allow bakeries to turn down gay cake orders, a pretty minor issue in the grand scheme of things.
Scott Alexander (of Slate Star Codex) recently posted an entertaining review of David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, basically the longer version of Woodard’s American Nations, which ended, somewhat amusingly, with Scott realizing that maybe creating a democracy with a bunch of people whose political ideas you find morally repugnant isn’t a good idea.
A few notes:
1. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Puritans names like “Maybe” or “Notwithstanding” weren’t so much random words from the Bible as first words from favorite verses or parts of verses that had been assigned so that the names of the children together formed the complete line (see the Quakers for this sort of name.)
2. The lack of farmers among early Puritan stock might explain why they nearly all starved to death the first couple of years.
3. When people talk about the Cavaliers who settled the Deep South, they all seem to note that of course the underclass of society was not Cavaliers, but then kind of gloss over where the British underclass came from. Most of them, I suspect, were Borderers or their near-equivalents from other parts of the isle, such as thieves and the urban underclass.
I think people tend to imagine these groups (Puritans, Quakers, Borderers, and Cavaliers,) as supposed to be regionally distinct, but most of the time I think we are looking at layers which overlap multiple regions in varying thicknesses. The Borderers, for example, spread across the Deep South, Florida, Texas, the Mountain West, California, Quakerdom, and probably even New England (though the harsh New England climate was probably not as kind to them.) But the trajectory of the Deep South was shaped more by its Cavalier overclass with its African slaves (thus inspiring the Civil War) than by its Borderer underclass. Appalachia, by contrast, was not suited to plantations, and so there the Cavaliers never settled in great quantities and the Borderers are thus a much larger % of the overall society.
So when people ask why Appalachia tends to vote in line with the Deep South, despite these supposedly being two separate groups, I think they are just missing that the majority of whites in the Deep South and Appalachia come from the same or very similar groups of people. The Cavalier overclass was never more than a small % of the Deep South’s population, and obviously blacks vote Democrat.
Also, the Civil War seems to have left a long-term impact on people’s loyalties, where people who strike me as “pretty conservative” but hail from Massachusetts still vote Democrat because they perceive Republicans as the party of those Confederate-flag-waving bigots down in the South.
Yay tribalism leads to rational, optimal political outcomes!
4. Scott does not note that the reason the white Cavalier underclass became “sluggish and indolent” was massive rates of hookworm infection. IIRC, around 1910, de-worming campaigns found that about 25% of Southern children were already infected; who knows what the % was among adults.
Hookworms are intestinal parasites that came over from Africa (with the slaves) and are spread by stepping barefoot into human feces crawling with parasite larvae.
Life before flush toilets was thoroughly disgusting.
Anyway, bad enough that the poor slaves had parasites, but the whites hadn’t even had thousands of years to adapt them, leaving them especially susceptible. The parasites cause anemia, which causes people to act “sluggish and indolent.”
Things got better when they introduced “shoes” to the South.
5. I suspect the disappearance of the Quakers happened not because they “tolerated themselves out of existence” (or not just because) but because they had fewer children than everyone else around them. Plenty of immigrants have arrived, after all, in virtually all parts of the US, but Quakers today are rarer than hen’s teeth. Compare the 16% Quaker female non-marriage rate to the near 100% Puritan marriage rate. The Quakers also spawned the Shakers, who abstained from marriage (and having children) all together.
Of course, this may represent a failure to reproduce their religion rather than their genetics–Quakers resemble “normal people” closely enough that their children may have simply felt that it was unnecessary to attach a religious label to it.
6. Quakers may represent the “normal” position in American politics today in part because they were in the middle of the country, both physically and ideologically. People might not want a country dominated by some group from the extreme end of the geography, but perhaps we can be comfortable with the folks from right in the middle.
7. “It occurs to me that William Penn might be literally the single most successful person in history.”
I raise you a Jesus, Mohammad, Genghis Khan, Karl Marx, and Gautama Buddha.
8. While it is true that Southern Baptist denomination absolutely dominates the entire country south of the Mason-Dixon, it is slightly less popular in Appalachia than in the Deep South. I think the interesting thing about Borderer religion is the popularity of Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations, which are rarer in the rest of the country.
9. Children physically attacking the school teacher or otherwise preventing the school from operating did not just happen in Borderer regions; it is a major theme in the early chapters of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, set in upstate New York. And as reader Psmith noted back on my review of Lenski’s Strawberry girl:
Build a bonfire out of schoolbooks,
Put the teacher on the top,
Put the prefects in the middle
And we’ll burn the bloody lot.
To the tune of “Deck The Halls”:
Deck the halls with gasoline
fa la la la la la la la la
Light a match and watch it gleam
fa la la la la la la la la
Watch the school burn down to ashes
Fa la la la la la la la la …
To the tune of “On Top Of Old Smokey”:
On top of old smokey
All covered in blood
I shot my poor teacher
with a .44 slug
Unlike Scott, I do remember hearing these sung by my classmates.
I did not enjoy being forced to attend school with those sorts of boys.
10. I have a lot of abstract appreciation for Borderer ideals of liberty, which are pretty much my symbolic idea of “what it means to be an American.” I also have a lot of sympathy for people who just want to go off in the woods and be left alone and not deal with interfering busy-bodies. I don’t now how well I’d actually get along in their society, though.
11. Scott remarks on the close parallels between the traits he’d already observed and attributed to the “Red Tribe” and “Blue Tribe;” and the traits Fischer ascribes to the original settlers of these regions as a point potentially in Fischer’s favor; I propose, however, a caution. Fischer himself is undoubtedly familiar with modern America and the relevant Republican/Democrat cultural divide. Fischer may have–consciously or unconsciously–sought out evidence and presented it to make the colonists resemble their descendants.
12. One of the… interesting aspects of the generalized orthosphere, including much of NRx, is that among American examples, Moldbuggian neocameralism most closely resembles (IMO) the “dystopian” Puritan bargain. The Puritan colonies were corporations owned by shareholders in which temporal and spiritual power were unified, only people who fit in culturally and were sufficiently intelligent were allowed in, and folks who wanted to leave were allowed to do so–the breaking off of Rhode Island as its own colony is a strong precursor for the concepts of patchwork and exit.
Of course, the Puritans still voted, as shareholders must–as long as your king is beholden to shareholders, they will vote. (And in any community where the population density is low enough that each man can be sovereign of his own individual domain, collective decisions are liable to entail, by necessity, a certain amount of consensus.
All of this is grafted onto a group of people who seem to favor the ideals of the Cavalier planter class, while claiming that the Puritans–wielding Quaker ideas–destroyed the moral basis of the formerly functional Borderer society. (Similar arguments are made that liberals have destroyed the moral basis of black society.)
This is not the first time I’ve noticed something like this–the dominant religion of the Deep South (the Cavalier zone,) Southern Baptism, does not resemble the beliefs put forth by deists like Thomas Jefferson, but good ol’ fashioned Puritanism. How exactly the Puritans converted to Unitarian Universalism and the Cavaliers and Borderers converted to Puritanism (or if this is just an artifact of Southern religion changing more slowly than Northern religion and so retaining more of its original character, which was closer to Puritanism in the 1600s than Puritanism is to its own modern descendants, much as Icelandic has morphed more slowly than other Scandinavian languages, allowing speakers of modern Icelandic to read archaic Norse texts that are unintelligible to speakers of other modern Scandinavian languages.
I also feel compelled to note that, while people have been claiming that the chief pig, Leonard, has a “Middle Eastern” style beard, Middle Easterners typically have curly haired beards, whereas Leonard clearly has straight fur. Also, Leonard has only managed a chin-beard, whereas Middle Easterners tend to have much fuller beards.
The comments on Slate Star Codex’s recent post, “Why Were Early Psychedelicists so Weird?” contain a fair number of stories along the lines of “I took LSD/shrooms/other illegal drugs and had interesting, positive effects,” and a few stories along the lines of “I knew a guy who tried LSD and it fried his brain and turned him into a drooling idiot.”
Normally, I think it best to rate “I did X”-style testimony more highly than “I knew a guy who did X.” In this case, however, I want to urge caution, because there is an obvious selection bias in the kinds of stories you are going to hear: drooling idiots are bad at writing.
The people whose brains got fried on illegal drugs do not have the ability to get on the internet and write coherent, entertaining posts on the subject, and they certainly do not have the IQ points left to be part of the regular readership/commentariat on Scott’s blog. In fact, they aren’t writing a whole lot of anything. Which means that if you are reading about LSD-experiences in the comments section of Scot’s blog, you are only going to read stories from people who are still mentally with it, or people warning that a bad thing happened to a guy they knew.
I have no idea what % of people who try LSD end up okay, better, or worse afterwards, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that 50% are fine-to-better and 50% end up in droolsville. The 50% who are fine go post on Scott’s blog, and the 50% who are not fine never show up because they can’t type anymore, except as cautionary tales from the few guys who know the details about a former friend’s illegal activities.
Maybe LSD researchers can tell you what percentage of people fry their brains on it, shrooms, or other psychedelics. But you certainly can’t make any good estimation based on a biased sample like this–so don’t.
And yes, I know, everyone with positive stories would probably say that the key is to be very careful about how much you use, purity, and allowing enough time between uses. But the people who fried their brains probably thought that, too.
I am not saying that these drugs cannot possibly have any positive medical uses. I am saying that you should avoid using biased datasets when formulating any theories on the matter.
Warning: I am not entirely satisfied with this post.
I had to spend today with dumbs.
At one point, someone claimed ISIS consists of militant atheists.
By the end I was about ready to chew my arm off to escape.
You know, if The Big Bang Theory were at all realistic, one of the rules in Sheldon’s roommate agreement would be that Penny isn’t allowed in his apartment. He wouldn’t be able to stand her.
“Tribe” can be a difficult concept to articulate, especially if you don’t live in an explicitly tribal society. To be an outlier (in any way) is a recipe for isolation–there’s simply no one else around like yourself. You make do, if you can. But when you finally find someone–or a whole group of someones–like yourself, it’s a wonderful moment.
These days, spending most of my time in the company of others like myself leads to a certain complacency, but it takes only a few hours in the presence of outsiders to remind me of just how awful it is to be in a place where no one thinks like you do.
I’m not one for “who is a true X?” fights. I’m not going to debate who is and isn’t a poser. But I reserve the right to have personal opinions about whether or not we get along and how people affect group dynamics.
I think it is emotionally healthy–perhaps even necessary–to have a group of people you fit in with and whose company you enjoy.
To have such a group requires at least some awareness of the existence of your group and a willingness to define some people as inside of it and some as outside of it. This does not require hating outsiders–if anything, most people seem capable of identifying with some group or another (a local sports team, their state, people who use ham radios, etc.,) without particularly hating everyone outside of it. (For that matter, most people are quite innocently self-concerned–too busy with their own lives to really take much notice of things outside of it–and so do not really notice or know much about people outside of their own groups.)
But nerds have a habit, in my experience, of being explicitly anti-tribal. I think this is a side effect of growing up on the outside of everyone else’s tribes. When everyone else has a group of friends and you don’t, it’s pretty easy to decide that being exclusionary is wrong and immoral.
Realistically speaking, of course, there aren’t a lot of people trying to sneak into nerd spaces for inappropriate reasons–how many people are physics posers? (I am pretty sure I have been snuck to an exclusive physics lecture by someone trying to date me. Does that count as inappropriate?) But even so, group membership is not worthless. When my husband and I met and he asked me out, I was willing to give him a chance because I was vaguely familiar with him as a member of my social group. People in my group, at least, were somewhat known quantities–if he were a bad person, I likely would have heard about it or could find out quickly from a mutual acquaintance.
(A note for the unwary: sometimes your mutual acquaintances value different things in a partner than you do; sometimes people are outright liars. Tread cautiously when dealing with the opinions of others.)
Even now, I find that, “Do you look like people I have previously gotten along with?” is a pretty good metric for picking people to talk to.
Serious question, folks: Have you ever observed a correlation between “I find this person attractive” and “I enjoy talking to this person”? Not in an “I find it unpleasant to talk to ugly people because they hurt my eyes,” nor in an “I am going to be extra sympathetic to things you say because I want to have sex with you,” kind of way. More in a “Wow, how did I get so lucky that I am actually attracted to the small subset of people I can stand talking to?” My own taste in men hasn’t changed since 4th grade, which was really well before I had any idea what sorts of personality traits or political opinions or lifestyles I’d be interested in as a grown-up, and yet it has consistently served me well.
Anyway, back to politics. A few decades ago, it seems like there was more of a place for nerds in mainstream politics. Republicans liked funding projects that employ nerds, like atomic bombs, and Democrats claimed to believe in things like evolution. Even then, of course, there was a third political position that attracted a fair number of nerds: Libertarianism aka Objectivism. Heck, even the name sounds appropriate for people who are inclined toward a scientific view of the world.
Since then, both mainstream sides have turned against us. Republicans have been anti-science since at least Bush II–who ran on an explicitly anti-smart people campaign–and have been trying to prevent people from learning about the basic theories underlying modern science since approximately forever. This drove a lot of us into the “liberal” or “Libertarian” camps back in the ’90s and ’00s. Since then, though, liberalism underwent a shift, from extolling Libertarian-like meta-politics of respecting peoples’ individual rights on matters like free speech, entertainment, or religion, to the collectivist advocacy of particular group interests–groups that are, to be explicit, not nerds.
Demographically speaking, most nerds are English, German, Jewish, and East Asian men. (Most of them are also heterosexual, cisgendered, etc. etc.) Of course nerds come from all sorts of backgrounds–black, Russian, maybe even borderlands Scot. We are just talking overall numbers. But the SJW orthodoxy has been hammering, pretty explicitly, against the main nerd demographics.
To give an example: most of the nerdy and/or high IQ people I know were, circa 2000, sympathetic to feminist arguments. For that matter, when it comes to violence against women, nerds are probably among the groups least likely to commit any. Per capita, blacks, Hispanics, and lower-class whites commit much more violence. And yet, as a practical matter, people like Scott Alexander–who’s asexual, non-violent, and simply asked for advice on how to find love–or Scott Aaronsen, who confessed to feeling so terrified of the possibility of accidentally harassing someone that he became suicidal–are more likely to get attacked by feminists than folks who actually actually rapedover a thousand children.
As a female nerd, I confess I find this a double insult: first you attack my people for something they aren’t guilty of, and then you refuse to defend women against the people actually raping them.
So nerds have split. Some of the old Libertarians have decided that, essentially, we can’t use a meta-ethic of treating everyone equally if some people are starting from unequal positions–that everyone has to be brought to equal positions first, and then treated equally. Others–especially those now styling themselves “Rationalists,” have stuck with the original Libertarian values but attempted to improve their ability to to deal with complex, real-world situations. And a third group–Neoreactionaries–has turned explicitly away from equality.
“Mutational load” is the idea that organisms contain some number of deleterious mutations. Some mutations will kill you outright, like the one for Tay-Sachs disease; some mutations greatly reduce your fitness but aren’t immediately lethal, like the inability to sweat; and some mutations are potentially problematic but mostly just kind of annoying, like colorblindness.
Random mutations happen all the time as a result of genetic transcription. The obviously bad ones tend to get weeded out of the population pretty quickly, but the ones with only a mild effect on fitness can stick around for a pretty long time. Under harshly Malthusian conditions where organisms compete for limited resources and danger and disease lurk at every turn, deleterious mutations will tend to get weeded out pretty quickly, but increase the food and decrease the danger/diseases, and a far larger % of your population will reproduce, including people who would previously have died.
One of the areas where mutational load seems to play a significant role is in IQ. I commented on a study n the subject back in “Is Genius Fragile?” While obviously a great variety of things go into determining one’s IQ, like whether you were in a good mood when you took the test and if your parents dropped you on your head as an infant, this particular study found that the major difference between extremely-high-IQ kids and normal-to-low-IQ people was that the normal-to-low people had a higher frequency of rare, slightly deleterious mutations. The lower the IQ, the more of these mutations.
Each mutation obviously has only a small effect–you could have several and still come out pretty smart. But to be one of the super smart kids, you had to basically be one of the lucky folks who escaped almost all of them.
IQ is interesting in another way: it is more variable in men than women. People make a big deal out of the greater preponderance of men than women at the very high end of the IQ distribution (especially math ability;) this is, we are frequently told, due to the pernicious evil effects of the patriarchy’s black-magic mind-control rays convincing women that they are bad at math. Strangely, however, we are never told that the opposite effect–the fact that the ranks of the intellectually retarded are also disproportionately male–is also due to the magical effects of the patriarchy.
BTW, if you think it is a problem that the evil patriarchy is preventing girls from getting math PhDs, but have no problem with boys being over-represented among the retarded, you are a horrible person.
You see, because random unpleasant shit happens, like snake bites and random mutations, nature has built us with a fair amount of redundancy. If something happens to one of your eyes, you’ve still got the other. If something happens to one of your hands, you’ve got an extra. Etc. This is true on the genetic level, too, which is why you can survive even with small, fitness-reducing mutations.
But men have slightly less genetic redundancy than women, because they have an X and Y chromosome instead of two Xes. If a woman has a wonky mutation on one of her Xs, the other X may have a mutation that makes up for it. If a man has a wonky mutation on his X, his Y chromosome may have nothing to counteract it (and likewise, if there’s a wonky one on his Y, his X may have nothing to counteract it.)
Some mutations are good, some are bad, and some are neutral. Height is fairly neutral. The average man is taller than the average woman, but the spread from tallest men to shortest men is bigger than the spread from tallest women to shortest women. All women tend to cluster closer to the female average than men; there are both more “short men” and “tall men” than “short women” and “tall women.”
Likewise with IQ; there are both more male geniuses and retarded than female geniuses and retarded, most likely as a result of men having lower genetic redundancy to counteract the effects of mutational load.
1. Place your right hand firmly on the plate of a photocopier or scanner with fingers straight. Close cover of place a sheet of paper over your hand to prevent glare from overhead lights. Ensure that the bottom crease and finger tip can be clearly seen in the photocopy.
2. Use a ruler or calipers to measure the distance from the middle of the bottom crease to the tip of the finger to the nearest hundredth of a centimeter.
3. Once you have the measures for both your ring and index finger, then divide the length of your index finger by the length of your ring finger. The result is 2D:4D (2nd digit divided by 4th digit).
If possible, please give three digits – for example, 0.915. Some people may have digit ratios slightly greater than 1, which is okay.)
Inspired, the husband and I decided to measure ours, too. Since we didn’t have a photocopier on hand, and were lazy, we just used a common tape measure. We measured both hands and checked each other’s work, but both of our hands came out identical.
I got a ratio of 0.971, he got 0.957.
(Note that the closer the ratio is to 1, the closer your fingers are to being the same length. The further the ratio is from one, the further apart your finger lengths are.)
Scott notes that the average male digit ratio in his survey was 0.972; the average female digit ratio was 0.975.
According to Wikipedia, a study of 136 males and 137 females at the University of Alberta found:
People have taken to calling lower digit ratios (further from one) more “masculine,” and higher digit ratios (closer to one) more “feminine.” Which leads to the question of why all of these Rationalist math-nerds, whose community is definitely majority male and whose field is regarded as a stereotypically “Male” thing, should all have such overwhelmingly girly hands.
My first thought was that math nerds are effeminate. Which they are, for certain definitions of effeminate. But mathy women tend to be kind of masculine, which isn’t what this data shows. My second thought was that femininity/masculinity may be additive rather than subtractive–that is, having an extra unit of “masculinity” doesn’t necessarily mean someone must therefore lack a unit of “femininity” in a directly linear fashion. Some people could be very low in both femininity and masculinity, or high in both.
My third thought was that maybe measuring digit ratios is too complicated by measurement error and bias and random noise due to things like “how do your fingers crease?” and “did you actually use a copy machine?” A LOT of social science research doesn’t replicate at all.
My fourth thought was that a large difference between one’s finger lengths sounds a lot like physical asymmetry–which is caused (among other things) by mutational load.
Symmetry has long been recognized as one of the things people look for in a mate. Asymmetric faces (and bodies) are deemed less attractive than symmetric ones. Symmetry is a sign of good health, good lifetime nutrition, few parasites, and low mutational load. Asymmetry is a sign of things gone wrong.
Men display more of the effects of mutational load due to their Y chromosomes, so we’d expect to see a wider range of male digit ratios than female ones–which is indeed what the Alberta study found. Really dumb men probably have very different digit lengths, while really smart men trend toward even fingers. Women, because of their two X chromosomes, are probably just less likely to have really uneven fingers (just as they are less likely to be really dumb.)
The Slate Star Codex and Less Wrong cohorts, on the other end of the spectrum, are very smart people in whom we would expect to see lower mutational load.
The latest study I read on autism found that sufferers have a higher mutational load than the background population; while such an explanation is less fun than “autistics are secret math geniuses,” it is sensible. At any rate, if so, we should find a correlation between autism and divergent digit ratios, which the SSC/LW survey did. (Why autistics tend to be male should be immediately obvious.)
Likewise, if homosexuality is caused by some kind of genetic or parasitic agent, we would expect it to correlate with digit divergence. According to the Wikipedia, lesbians have more divergent digits than heterosexual women, but the jury is still out on gay men.
Interestingly, Wikipedia reports that the Han Chinese (who score very well on IQ tests,) have very even fingers, and that the Jamaicans (who do not do so well on IQ tests,) have very divergent ratios. (However, like much of this digit ratio research, I regard this as speculative.)
Of course, like height, there my also be an androgenic effect, such that men are supposed to (for whatever reasons) have slightly different digit ratios than women. After all, even the SSC/LW sample had more divergent ratios for the men than the women, even though the whole SSC/LW population probably has about equal mutational loads (having been pre-selected for high IQ, which = low mutational load.)
“If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.” — Confucius
This quote is one of my personal mottoes, but I have added a corollary: “If I am walking with only one man, I still have two teachers, for I may learn to achieve goodness from a man’s good side, and to avoid evil from a man’s bad side.”
At any rate, Edison is a man whose goodness instructs us on how to take brilliant ideas and build the structures necessary for them to benefit humanity. Edison is a man who literally built civilization and deserves credit for both seeing how the structures needed to fit together to work, and for having the skills necessary to actually bring people together and build those structures.
Tesla is a lesson on how society should not manage its creative geniuses, (and I don’t mean the dumb pay dispute with Edison.)
Tesla is an interesting character. He appears to have been one of the world’s exceedingly rare true short sleepers, which appears to be a genetic condition:
“Ying-Hui Fu … studies the genetics and other characteristics of short sleepers at her neurogenetics lab.
“Currently, Fu knows of three types of genetic mutations that are related to the ability to function well on minimal amounts of sleep, which often runs in the family. In a 2009 paper published in the journal Science, she described a mother and a daughter who shared the same genetic mutation of the gene DEC2 that allowed them to thrive on six hours of sleep per night. So far Fu has identified about 50 families of short sleepers.
“This group of short sleepers is unique,” Fu said, describing them as optimistic and energetic, often holding more than one job. …
“Interestingly, these high energy levels typical of short sleepers can sometimes reach behavioral extremes. For instance, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research that examined the sleep patterns and personality of 12 short sleepers, researchers found some evidence of subclinical hypomania — a milder form of manic behavior, characterized by euphoria, disinhibition and, in fact, a decreased need for sleep.”
Please note that drinking 10 5-hour-energy drinks in a row is not the same as having a genetic mutation that lets you get by on less sleep. Chances are extremely likely that you, my friend, are already not getting as much sleep as you need for optimum health. Also, since very few short sleepers have actually been studied, what we think we know about them may not be entirely accurate; they may suffer long-term consequences that have not yet been documented, for example. I do wonder if chronic lack of sleep eventually got to Tesla, reducing him to a state of waking-dreaming toward the end of his life, when he began going obviously loopy.
Tesla’s rigidity of personality, behavior, and dress are reminiscent of the compulsive, repetitive, and restrictive behaviors associated with autism/Asperger’s Syndrome (now just another part of “autism” in the DSM,) eg,
“People with Asperger syndrome display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. They may stick to inflexible routines, move in stereotyped and repetitive ways, or preoccupy themselves with parts of objects.
“Pursuit of specific and narrow areas of interest is one of the most striking features of AS. Individuals with AS may collect volumes of detailed information on a relatively narrow topic such as weather data or star names, without necessarily having a genuine understanding of the broader topic.” (Wikipedia.)
I’ve long thought it a problem that these definitions/descriptions make no effort to distinguish between “Aspies” and genuinely intelligent people, who simply have more ability to memorize facts of any sort and will learn about any subject in more depth than someone of ordinary intelligence. If we want to define high IQ as a mental disorder, then, well, I guess we can, but it seems like a bad idea to me.
Autistic children apparently also have difficulty sleeping, which is why many of them are being prescribed melatonin as a sleep aid (as I discussed back in Melanin, Sexuality, and Aggression.) However, these autistic kids appear to actually need more sleep than they’re getting; they just seem to have trouble turning off their brains and keeping them off long enough for a proper sleep.
Anyway, to get extremely speculative: Much like Fu’s short sleepers, the autistic people I have worked with personally (N=small) seemed like they had brains on overdrive. Imagine that a normal brain is an Amish buggy, going along at a nice, reasonable clip, and their brains are Formula One race cars. Brain speed in this case may have nothing to do with IQ, per say, or may in fact be detrimental to it–autistics are far more likely than the general population to test as mentally retarded–but I favor a theory that having a small quantity of autistic-like traits may be useful for people in fields or occupations that require high IQ, but large quantities of autistic-like traits cause too many negative side effects, resulting in full-blown autism. In Tesla’s case, he got the benefits of the massively high-powered, sped-up brain, with a side effect that he couldn’t turn it off long enough to get more than a few hours of sleep and lacked the normal social instincts that lead people to marry, have children, and generally form stable relationships with other people.
To be fair, this is not evidence that Tesla actually supported the Nazis or their policies.
Back in Is Genius Fragile?, I discussed a recent paper in Molecular Psychology that claimed to have studied 1,400 students with IQs of 170 or above, and found no rare genetic alleles that were more common in them than people of normal or low IQ, but did find rare, deleterious alleles in regular/dumb people.
But are such alleles actually deleterious? Tesla never married and had no children; neither did Isaac Newton. Einstein had three children, but one of them seems to have died in infancy and one was institutionalized for schizophrenia.
In other words, perhaps some of these alleles they’ve noticed aren’t deleterious, but actually helpful in some way. Perhaps, for example, there is an allele that codes for processes that help you turn off your brain at night and transition to certain sleep states. Without that allele, your brain is more “on” all the time, you feel more alert and can think more clearly than others without getting tired, but ultimately there are some bad side effects to not sleeping. Or perhaps the brain’s ability to see patterns is normally regulated by another mechanism that helps you distinguish between real patterns and false matches, which might malfunction in people like John Nash, resulting both in increased pattern-matching ability and in schizophrenia. By the way, I am totallyspeculating and might be completely wrong.
Please note that from the evolutionary POV, traits–like IQ–are not inherently valuable. A trait is adaptive if it leads to the continuation of your DNA into future generations, and is deleterious or maladaptive if it hinders the continuation of your DNA. If high IQ people do not have children, the high IQ is maladaptive and being selected out of the population. (Please note, also, that different environments, both physical and cultural, select for different traits. Had Tesla remained near his family back in Croatia, they might have helped arrange a marriage for him, leading eventually to children and romantic entanglements with someone who wasn’t a pigeon.)
However, even if high-IQ people never reproduced under any circumstances, their existence in a population might still be advantageous to the population as a whole–you probably enjoy having lightbulbs, electricity, cell phones, and other such things, for example. The development of vaccines, industrial agriculture, and modern theories about nutrition and hygiene have vastly expanded the Earth’s human population over the past hundred years, and would have done so even if the people involved had not had any children at all.
This is a somewhat complicated issue that depends on the interaction of a lot of variables, like whether society can consistently produce high-IQ people even if the high-IQ people themselves do not have many children, and whether the innovations of modernity will actually help us survive (the Amish, after all, have more children than your average person with a cell phone.) See: “How–and why–genius is group selected–massive cultural amplification” for some more discussion on the subject.
Regardless, I am operating under the assumption that society benefits from the existence of people like Tesla (and, of course, Edison.)
Anyway, back to Tesla and his job difficulties.
In “The Improperly Excluded,” Micheal Ferguson theorizes that there exists a maximum IQ difference between two people beyond which they cannot effectively communicate, which he places around 20 IQ points. (I think I discussed it here and here.) So a person with an average IQ of 100 can understand and communicate with someone with a 120 IQ, and someone with a 120 can understand a 140, but the 100 and 140 are essentially speaking Greek to each other; the 100 IQ person cannot make heads or tails of the 140’s thoughts, nor distinguish their claims from those of a crazy person or charlatan. If the 100 trusts the 120, the 120 can take advice from the 140 and recommend it to the 100, but beyond that, people of, say, 160 IQ are just too far removed from the average population to even get their ideas effectively communicated. Extremely high IQ people, therefore, may be improperly excluded from positions where they could actually do important work just because average people have no way to understand what they’re saying. Additionally, since extremely high IQ people are very rare, they may have to cope with a world in which almost no one they meet is within their comfortable conversation zone.
Note: see Hollingworth Fan’s comment below for some very interesting quotes on this subject.
Tesla, a guy who could do integer calculus in his head, was undoubtedly brilliant far beyond the common walks of man, and so seems to have faced the constant frustration of being surrounded by idiots like Edison. Upon Edison’s death, Tesla opined in the NY Times about his former boss:
“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene … His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.”
That idiot Edison, by the way, had six children, none of whom seem to have died in infancy or gone crazy. Three went into science/inventing, two were women, and I don’t know what happened to the fourth boy. Edison was undoubtedly helped in life by living in the same country as his family, but he also seems to have just been a more stable person who successfully managed to balance his work and social life. Edison: better adapted to his environment than Tesla.
Tesla’s genius was undoubtedly under-utilized. Tesla could not manage his own affairs, and so needed, at the very least, the strong structural support of a family that would prevent him from doing stupid things like gambling away his tuition money and dropping out of college, as well as a sound employer or university that would manage the business end of Tesla’s laboratory expenses and design implementation. Immigration to the US left Tesla without the support of his family, and his own stubbornness lead him to quit what would otherwise have been a productive career.
Additionally, Tesla’s ideas may truly have been too far ahead of their time for even other smart people to appreciate and understand. There were few people in the world at his level, and he must have spent much of his life completely isolated from anyone who could understand him. Even an employer willing to finance his schemes might not have been able to understand (and thus implement) some of them.
Isolation, I suspect, leads eventually to madness. Not because (or just because) isolation makes people lonely, which makes them depressed. But because the human animal is not designed to work in isolation.
In the extreme example, we know from observing people in solitary confinement that it breaks their brains and drives them insane.
In everyday life, our brains require regular feedback from others to make sure our ideas and impulses are correct. To give a trivial example, suppose I mention to my husband that a friend of mine did something today that really annoyed me, and he responds that I am misinterpreting things, that he heard from my friend’s husband that morning about some extenuating circumstances that explain her behavior and that I should not be annoyed with her. Likewise, he might come to me with a story about a co-worker who seems to be stealing his ideas, and I could help figure out if the guy really is.
Isolation removes this feedback, leading to more and more incorrect ideas.
“Think of top-down processing as taking noise and organizing it to fit a pattern. Normally, you’ll only fit it to the patterns that are actually there. But if your pattern-matching system is broken, you’ll fit it to patterns that aren’t in the data at all. …
“So hallucinations are when your top-down processing/pattern-matching ability becomes so dysfunctional that it can generate people and objects out of random visual noise. Why it chooses some people and objects over others I don’t know, but it’s hardly surprising – it does the same thing every night in your dreams.
“Many of the same people who have hallucinations also have paranoia. Paranoia seems to me to be overfunctioning of social pattern-matching. … When a paranoiac hears a stray word here, or sees a sideways glance there, they turn it into this vast social edifice of connected plots.”
Tesla’s claims to have been working on a “Death Ray” that turned out to be an old battery, his romantic entanglement with a pigeon, claims that “thieves” had broken into his hotel room in search of his “Death Ray” but not been able to find, and the Mythbusters’ thorough busting of his claims to have built an oscillator that nearly brought down the building and had to be destroyed with a sledgehammer all sound a lot like what Scott’s describing. As a guy who could do calculus in his head, Tesla had an extreme talent for pattern matching–perhaps too extreme. Scott continues:
“So to skip to the point: I think all of this is about strengthening the pattern-matching faculty. You’re exercising it uselessly but impressively, the same way as the body-builder who lifts the same weight a thousand times until their arms are the size of tree trunks. Once the pattern-matching faculty is way way way overactive, it (spuriously) hallucinates a top-down abstract pattern in the whole universe. This is the experience that mystics describe as “everything is connected” or “all is one”, or “everything makes sense” or “everything in the universe is good and there for a purpose”. The discovery of a beautiful all-encompassing pattern in the universe is understandably associated with “seeing God”.”
Recovered schizophrenics I’ve talked to report the exact same thing: both a mystical sense of the union of all things, and joy at the experience (though they also report that schizophrenia can be absolutely terrifying, because sometimes the voices are evil.)
And finally (at least for the quoting):
“I think other methods of inducing weird states of consciousness, like drugs and meditation, probably do the same thing by some roundabout route. Meditation seems like reducing stimuli, which is known to lead to hallucinations in eg sensory deprivation tanks or solitary confinement cells in jail. I think the general principle is that a low level of external stimuli makes your brain adjust its threshold for stimulus detection up until anything including random noise satisfies the threshold.”
Isolation/ lack of stimulus has a direct effect of lowering the brain’s threshold for identifying patterns until random background noise gets interpreted as conversation. (The general correlation between schizophrenia and low IQ could be partially an effect of smarter people being better at avoiding severe isolation, and dumber people being more likely to end up in situations where literally no one has a real conversation with them for years at a time.
Tesla seems to have been isolated in his own way, both by being far more intelligent than the vast majority of people, and so unable to converse properly with them, and also by having none of his family, kin, or fellow countrymen around. He even had to communicate primarily in a language that was hardly his first.
Long term, I suspect such isolation had a negative effect on Tesla’s sanity and ability to wisely conduct his own affairs.
Tesla is a difficult case, because he willingly walked away from what were probably excellent career opportunities, and there’s hardly anything anyone could do about his family being back in Croatia. However, since most people do live in the same country as their families, we can still draw some general conclusions:
Some really smart people may require significant support from society and/or their families/employers in order to properly function and fully realize their potential. Their families should probably step in and help them get married if they can’t do it themselves, at the very least to help keep them happy and stable.
The Wikipedia quotes physicist Y. S. Kim on the subject of P. A. M. Dirac (one of my favorite scientists)’s marriage to Margit Wigner, sister of Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner:
“It is quite fortunate for the physics community that Manci took good care of our respected Paul A. M. Dirac. Dirac published eleven papers during the period 1939–46…. Dirac was able to maintain his normal research productivity only because Manci was in charge of everything else.”
Alas, the Wikipedia does not give the details of how an autist like Dirac managed to marry Manci.
Really smart people may have some ideas that are astounding brilliant, and also have a lot of ideas that don’t work at all, because that is just the nature of creativity, but the average person probably can’t tell the difference. They need other people like themselves to bounce ideas off of and generally converse with. Their eccentricities are generally harmless, and the community is better off tolerating them.
Above all, try not to abandon them. Humans are not built to be alone.
In his recent post, “Contra Simler on Prestige,” Scott Alexander attempts to interrogate why prestigious people are high status. He first distinguishes between dominant and prestigious people, where dominant people are high-status because they can force you to do things. Prestigious people, by contrast, are high-status because they do something that makes you want to obey them, like sing really well. (Here he gives the example of Justin Bieber. Well, maybe you wouldn’t do something just because Justin Bieber asked you to, but there are a lot of girls who would.)
Alexander then quotes a long passage from Kevin Simler’s Social Status: Down The Rabbit Hole–which I am forced to quote in turn because it’s necessary–about a bird called the Arabian babbler:
The Arabian babbler … spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.
When it’s living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These “non-territorials” are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. …
Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense “all-out” fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. …
Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They’ll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They’ll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group’s territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is “guard duty,” in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon. …
Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it’s a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn’t compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.
Alexander then tries to analogize this back to Justin Bieber and the Koch brothers, and finds that it doesn’t really work, but it reminds me of something rather different. From Jim’s Blog, “A Lost Military Technology“:
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, wealthy private individuals substantially supported the military, with a particular wealthy men buying stuff for a particular regiment or particular fort.
Noblemen paid high prices for military commands, and these posts were no sinecure. You got the obligation to substantially supply the logistics for your men, the duty to obey stupid orders that would very likely lead to your death, the duty to lead your men from in front while wearing a costume designed to make you particularly conspicuous, and the duty to engage in honorable personal combat, man to man, with your opposite number who was also leading his troops from in front.
A vestige of this tradition remains in that every English prince has been sent to war and has placed himself very much in harm’s way.
It seems obvious to me that a soldier being led by a member of the ruling class who is soaking up the bullets from in front is a lot more likely to be loyal and brave than a soldier sent into battle by distant rulers safely in Washington who despise him as a sexist homophobic racist murderer, that a soldier who sees his commander, a member of the ruling classes, fighting right in front of him, is reflexively likely to fight.
Human social networks are based on reciprocity–you give me a chunk of meat, and when I kill an antelope, I’ll give you a chunk of meat. Indeed, all morality works within the context of reciprocity. The powerful establish the relationship with their vassals via the exchange of gifts, in return for which they receive taxes and service on their estates. The vassal receives military protection in return. The top bird puts his life on the line for his community, in return for which he receives food from the other birds and more opportunities to mate.
This is is different from–though not entirely–being highly skilled in some non-war related way. Skilled people are valued because they contribute to society, they just don’t put their lives on the line leading troops into battle. Justin Bieber is a glorified court minstrel, but without any real princes or kings in our society, we may have to make do.
George Washington, who lead troops in battle, was–and remains–our most popular president. #2 Abraham Lincoln did not lead troops, but has a kind of battle aura due to having “lead the nation” during wartime. Teddy Roosevelt, formerly one of our top 4, also lead troops in battle.
This is called “leadership.”
Today, it seems like we are moving increasingly away from this model.
This is just something I wrote in response to Free Northerner’s response to Slate Star Codex‘s claims of increasing left-right political polarization:
I think there’s an issue here where Left and Right don’t always take stands on the same issues. Liberals can care about Issue A that conservatives don’t give a fig about, while conservatives care about B that liberals aren’t even aware of. So, for example, my conservative uncle might rant endlessly about Benghazi, while my liberal uncle keeps rambling on about White Privilege.
In many ways, the right and left have become more polarized from each other, but the right has been generally unsuccessful in the long term on most of their issues. They have not repealed Roe V. Wade; they have not eliminated Welfare or gotten deficit spending under control. They have not reinstated prayer in school. Hypothetically, they might have “moved right” in some opinion poll of what they profess to believe, or they might have simply felt more to the right as the country shifted suddenly leftward, but they haven’t accomplished their agendas.
I was subjected to a portion of [the most recent] Republican debate, and just disgusted at the sheer amount of verbal garbage the candidates spouted that was nothing more than a re-iteration of Republican talking points for the past thirty years. They have failed to overturn Roe V. Wade for the past 40 years, but they are still up there promising that this time, they’re really going to do it! They promise to cut the budget, eliminate the deficit, and increase military spending! Where, exactly, do they think the money for the military comes from? These people don’t achieve their objectives or else their objective is simply “no change at all,” rather than rightward movement.
By contrast, liberals have actually been achieving their goals. Whether or not they’ve personally become more liberal relative to the rest of the population, or relative to the past, they’ve had a lot of successes and convinced a lot of the country to agree with them.
So we could get both increasing polarization of people and a general leftward trend on actual policies.
People are probably more likely to spout liberal positions when they involve far away people or moral posturing that they suspect will incur no material cost to themselves, and more conservative positions when they bear the potential cost. That is, it’s easy to sit in the US and say, “Oh, yes, Germany should take as many refugees as physically possible,” while at the same time saying, “No, I don’t want to give one of the spare rooms in my house to a refugee.” Or “Ferguson police must stop shooting black people!” while demanding lower crime rates in one’s own city.
But there are far more people in the world who don’t live in Ferguson (or Germany) than who do, and so the collective pressure of people making small, low-cost to them decisions about far away people can overwhelm the local pressure of people making great-cost to them decisions. So general consensus moves leftward.